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SPOTLIGHT: The Little Mermaid

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Little Mermaid

History of the Tale
Many cultures around the world have tales of mermaids and other magical human-like creatures of the sea in their folkloric traditions. 

The first known mermaid tale appeared in ancient Assyria, more than 3,000 years ago. The goddess Atargatis was in love with a handsome shepherd, but accidentally killed him. In her guilt and shame, she leapt into a lake and took the form of a fish but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. So she was caught as a human above the waist and a fish below. 

In Greek mythology, mermaids are linked with sirens, beautiful yet dangerous creatures that lure sailors to the death with their enchanting and irresistible singing. 


There is a similar tale in German folklore, telling the story of a beautiful young maiden named Lorelei who threw herself headlong into the river in despair over a faithless lover. Upon her death she was transformed into a siren and could from that time on be heard singing on a rock along the Rhine River. 
One Thousand and One Nights includes several tales featuring ‘sea people’, though they do not have fish-tails, but only the ability to breathe and live underwater. 

China has tales of a mermaid who ‘wept tears which became pearls’, while in Thai storytelling traditions there is a character called Suvannamaccha (lit. golden mermaid).  Mermaids and mermen also appear in Philippine folklore, where they are known as sirena and siyokoy.

From Scotland and Ireland come tales of selkies, said to live in the sea as seals but able to shed their sealskins and walk on the land in human form. (I have just had a children’s picture book published called Two Selkie Tales from Scotland). 


Melusine is another mermaid-like creature found in French fairy tales. She is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, or with the lower body of a serpent, and usually lives in forest pools and rivers. The story of Melusine inspired the very popular 19th century book Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, in which Undine, a water spirit, marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul. 

It is said to have inspired the most famous mermaid tale, Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" which was first published in 1837. Anyone who only knows the story because of the Disney remake will be shocked to read the original, which is far darker and crueller.  



In the original version, The Little Mermaid is the youngest daughter of a sea king who lives at the bottom of the sea. She saves the life of a prince on a ship and falls in love with him, and so goes to the sea-witch to ask her for a spell to give up her tail. The sea-witch cuts out her tongue, and tells her every step she takes will be like stepping on knives:

"I know what you want," said the sea witch. "It is very foolish of you, for it will bring you to grief, my proud princess. You want to get rid of your fish tail and have two stumps instead, so that you can walk about like a human creature, and have the young Prince fall in love with you, and win him and an immortal soul besides … But every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood must flow. … Well, have you lost your courage? Stick out your little tongue and I shall cut it off. I'll have my price, and you shall have the spell."

However, the prince marries another and the little mermaid has sacrificed all for nothing. Her sisters come to her with a dagger and tell her she can only become a mermaid again if she stabs him in the heart, but the Little Mermaid cannot bear to do so. She flings herself in the ocean instead and drowns.The spirits of the air save her and tell her that mermaids who do good deeds become daughters of the air, and after 300 years of good service they can earn a human soul.

It is thought The Little Mermaid was written as a kind of love letter to Hans Christian Andersen’s dear friend Edvard Collin. Andersen, upon hearing of Collin’s engagement to a young woman, wrote to him: 
‘I long for you as though you were a beautiful Calabrian girl … my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.’

Edvard Collin turned Andersen down, disgusted. Andersen then wrote The Little Mermaid to symbolize his inability to have Collin just as a mermaid cannot be with a human. He sent it to Collin in 1836 and it goes down in history as one of the most profound love letters ever written. When he died, Andersen’s will left most of his money to Collin. 

The Little Mermaid, as it was originally written, had an even more tragic ending with the Little Mermaid dying. 


Motifs & Meaning Of Tales
Unsurprisingly, most feminist scholars see Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as both violent and misogynist. 

The Little Mermaid sacrifices her voice, her mermaid tail, and ultimately her life, for the Prince, thus reinforcing a cultural stereotype which subordinates women. 

The scholar Robert W. Meyers describes the cutting out of the little mermaid’s tongue as “the relinquishment of her right to be heard, the loss of her creativity and the wound of castration”. 

According to Meyers, Andersen had a strong feminine identification which he repressed. He then instilled his own subconscious desires into his characters. The cutting out of the little mermaid’s tongue is essentially Andersen’s way of repressing his own feminine identity and sexual desires. He metaphorically removes sexuality from his character.



However, some feminists see the tale as a warning to women to choose not to be like the Little Mermaid – i.e to not accept any kind of abuse in the name of love.

Others focus on the spiritual transformation of the heroine, from a creature of the sea, to a creature of the land, to a creature of the air – showing her spirit’s progress up towards God. This is reflected in the themes of wounding, self-sacrifice and the idea of love defeating death. 


Modern Retellings
In 1961, Shirley Temple Theatre broadcast a television version of "The Little Mermaid", starring Shirley Temple as the Mermaid.

In 1989, Walt Disney made a very popular animated musical fantasy based on the story (though in it the mermaid gets her prince). ‘The Little Mermaid’ was the first Disney fairy tale retelling since Sleeping Beauty in 1959. The film rights of 'The Little Mermaid' had been a Disney property since 1941, with Walt planning to include the much darker Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale in a planned anthology film of his works. The idea was shelved in 1943. 

My novel Dancing on Knives draws upon the Andersen tale in allusion and structure. 


Favourite Books of Mine which feature mermaids or selkies:

Ingo by Helen Dunmore

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli

Sea-Hearts by Margo Lanagan (selkies)

Secrets of the Sea House (selkies)


You can listen to me talking about mermaids with Natasha Mitchell on ABC National 'Life Matters' or read my blog on the History & Meaning of Sleeping Beauty


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

 

BOOK LIST: Best books of 2013

Saturday, January 04, 2014

I have read so many brilliant books this year that I had great trouble narrowing it down to only a few. However, at last I have managed it – here are the best books I read in 2013, divided by genre. 

Because I love historical fiction, and stories that move between a historical and a contemporary setting, most of my favourite books are in these genres. However, there are a few utterly brilliant contemporary novels and fantasy novels as well. As always, my list is entirely and unashamedly subjective – many of these writers are my friends and colleagues, and one is my sister! 

However, all I can say is I am incredibly lucky to know so many über-talented writers. 

Best Historical Novel for Adults



Chasing the Light – Jesse Blackadder
A beautiful, haunting novel about the first women in Antarctica.


The Crimson Ribbon – Katherine Clements
Set in England in 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War, this is a utterly riveting tale of passion, intrigue, witchcraft, and treason. 


Longbourne – Jo Baker
A beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale about the lives of the servants at Longbourne, the home of the Bennets from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. 


A Spear of Summer Grass – Deanna Raybourn
Set during the Roaring 20s, this is the story of debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya .. where she finds intrigue, murder and romance. 


Letters from Skye – Jessica Brockmole 
This charming epistolary novel moves between the First World War and the Second World War, and tells the story of the blossoming romance between a young Scottish poet and an American university student. 


Best Historical Mystery


The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy - James Anderson
As one can probably tell from the title, this book is a gentle spoof of the Golden Age type of mysteries written by authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh – utterly clever and charming!


Bellfield Hall, or The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent – Anna Dean
Imagine a novel where Miss Marple meets Jane Austen, and you will begin to have a sense of this delightful Regency murder mystery. Miss Dido Kent, the heroine and amateur sleuth, is clever, witty, and astute … and finds a touch of romance in her search to uncover the murderer. 


Best Historical Thrillers



The Falcons of Fire & Ice - Karen Maitland
An utterly compelling historical novel which moves between Portugal and Iceland as a young woman searches for two rare white falcons in a desperate attempt to save her father's life. Her journey is fraught with danger, betrayal, murder and horror, with the strangest set of seers ever to appear in fiction.


The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
A fast-paced, action-packed historical thriller, filled with suspense and switchback reversals, that also manages to bring the corrupt and claustrophobic atmosphere of the Tudor court thrillingly to life.


Ratcatcher – James McGee
A ratcatcher is a Bow Street Runner, an early policeman in Regency times. A great historical adventure book, filled with spies, and intrigue, and romance, and murder. 


Best Historical Romance



The Autumn Bride - Anne Gracie
Anne Gracie never disappoints. This is beautiful, old-fashioned romance, driven by character and situation and dialogue, and, as always, is filled with wit and charm and pathos. 


A Tryst with Trouble – Alyssa Everett
Lady Barbara Jeffords is certain her little sister didn't murder the footman, no matter how it looks … and no matter what the Marquess of Beningbrough might say ... A fresh, funny and delightful Regency romance. 


I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal … It proved to be a very enjoyable romantic romp, with musical interludes. 


Best Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults



The Year of Ancient Ghosts – Kim Wilkins
'The Year of Ancient Ghosts' is a collection of novellas and short stories - brave, surprising, beautiful, frightening and tragic all at once


Beauty’s Sister – James Bradley
Beauty’s Sister is an exquisite retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, reimagined from the point of view of Rapunzel’s darker, wilder sister. 


Best Parallel Contemporary/Historical



Ember Island – Kimberley Freeman
A real page-turning delight, with a delicious mix of mystery, romance, history and family drama. One of my all-time favourite authors, Kimberley Freeman can be counted on to deliver an utterly compelling story. 


Secrets of the Sea House - Elisabeth Gifford
An intriguing and atmospheric novel set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, its narrative moves between the contemporary story of troubled Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.


The Shadow Year – Hannah Richell
A perfectly structured and beautifully written novel which uses parallel narratives to stunning effect. A compelling and suspenseful novel about family, love, and loss.


The Perfume Garden - Kate Lord Brown
A young woman inherits an old house in Spain, discovers clues to buried family secrets, meets a gorgeous Spaniard, and finds her true path in life ... interposed with flashbacks to her grandmother's experiences during the bloody and turbulent Spanish Civil War  ... 


The Ashford Affair – Lauren Willlig
I absolutely loved this book which moves between contemporary New York, and 1920s England and Africa. It's a historical mystery, a family drama, and a romance, all stirred together to create a compulsively readable novel.



Best Contemporary Novel



The Midnight Dress – Karen Foxlee
A beautiful, haunting, tragic tale of love and loss and yearning. 


The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
A feel-good romantic comedy, with wit and charm. 



Best Contemporary Suspense Novels


Sister – Rosamund Lupton
Utterly compulsive, suspenseful, clever, surprising, this is one of the best murder mysteries I have ever read. 


Shatter – Michael Robotham
Chilling, powerful and superbly written. Highly recommended for the brave.   


Best YA Fantasy/Fairytale Retellings



Thornspell – Helen Lowe
Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. 


Raven Flight – Juliet Marillier
A classic old-fashioned high fantasy with a quest at its heart. The writing is beautiful and limpid, the setting is an otherworldy Scotland, and the story mixes danger, magic and romance - sigh! I loved it. This is YA fantasy at its absolute best.  


Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Pureheart is the darkest of all fairy tales, it is the oldest of all quest tales, it is an eerie and enchanting story about the power of love and forgiveness. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. 


Scarlet in the Snow – Sophie Masson 
I just loved this retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, told with flair, dash, and panache, by one of my favourite Australian women writers. This is YA fantasy at its best - filled with magic, adventure and just a touch of romance. Loved it!




Best Historical Novel for Young Adults



The River Charm – Belinda Murrell
This beautiful, heart-wrenching novel is inspired by the true life story of the famous Atkinsons of Oldbury, earlier settlers in colonial Australia. It moves between the life of modern-day Millie, and her ancestor Charlotte Atkinson, the daughter of the woman who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia (who was, by the way, my great-great-great-great-grandmother. So, yes, that means Belinda is my sister.) 


Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
One of the best YA historical novels I have ever read, it is set in France and England during the Second World war and is the confession of a captured English spy. 


Witch Child – Celia Rees
Set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II, this is a simple yet powerful tale that explores the nature of magic and superstition, faith and cruelty.


Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
A heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novel for young adults, set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. 


Best Children’s Books



A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
What can I say? It's brilliant, surprising, harrowing, humbling. I found it hard to breathe after I finished reading it – such an emotional wallop!


Fire Spell – Laura Amy Schiltz
I absolutely adored this book! Laura Amy Schlitz reminds me of one of my all-time favourite authors, Joan Aiken, which is very high praise indeed. This is a rather creepy story about children and witches and a puppet-master in London a century or so ago. Brilliant. 


Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick
A perfect title for a book that is, indeed, struck with wonder. 


Best Non-Fiction




Hanns & Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz – Thomas Harding
The author of this utterly riveting and chilling book found out, at his great-uncle’s funeral, that the mild-mannered old man he had known had once been a Nazi hunter. And not just any Nazi. His Great Uncle Hanns had been the man who had hunted down and caught Rudolf Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. 



84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff
84 Charing Cross Road is not a novel, but rather a collection of letters between an American writer and an English bookseller over the course of many years. That description does not really give any indication of just how funny, heart-wrenching and beautiful this book is – you really do have to read it yourself.


The Bolter: The Story of Idina Sackville – Frances Osborne
The Bolter is the non-fiction account of the life of Idina Sackville, the author's great-grandmother, who had inspired the key character in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. She married and divorced numerous times, and was part of a very fast set in 1930s Kenya that led to scandal and murder - I loved it. 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

INTERVIEW: Elisabeth Gifford, author of Secrets of the Sea House

Friday, November 08, 2013

A story set in the Scottish islands, that draws on selkie fairy tales, and moves fluidly between the past and the present  ... anyone who knows me will be able to guess how eagerly I grabbed this book! Yet when I find a book I think I'm really going to love, I open it with trepidation as well as eagerness, afraid the book will not be as good as I had hoped.

Well, not this one.

I loved THE SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE truly, madly, deeply. It was one of the best books of the year so far.



When I really love a book, I write at once to the author to tell them so. And you want to know something eerie and wonderful? Elisabeth Gifford, the author of THE SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE, wrote back to me saying that she was so excited to hear from me as she had just finished reading my novel THE WILD GIRL! We worked out we must have been reading each other's books at much the same time (except, with the time difference, she was reading my book while I slept and I read her book while she slept. The universe is a magical and mysterious place sometimes).

So Elisabeth is a very special guest on the blog today. Please make her welcome.

 


Are you a daydreamer too?
By nature that’s my default setting. It used to get me into a lot of hot water as a child as I was generally facing the wrong way and with the wrong equipment at school - but having great thoughts. I don’t intend to give it up any time soon.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes I have, but it took a while to find the time and the confidence to decide I was allowed to spend lots of time writing. I began taking creative writing courses because I loved the process so much. From the Oxford diploma and the London University MA I found that I ended up with material for two books – and lots of inspiring friends, and now write full time.
 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
My father was a vicar in the industrial midlands so I’m very grateful for a rich and varied childhood. I hung around a lot of churchyards and loved the history of the old churches and cathedrals. Dad would stride around in a black cassock and sometimes go off to do an exorcism in a haunted house. I lived in France for a year, and in several parts of England and am now settled in Kingston, near London. 

My husband’s family comes from Scotland so we’ve spent a lot of time there. I adore the way that writing allows you to explore and evoke time and place and love being absorbed in a book project. I love visiting places for research and so have been to China ( for a book on Chinese orphanages), the Hebrides, Spain, Sweden and soon, Warsaw for a new book.  


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 
We took the children to the Hebrides several times while they were growing up, looking for somewhere quiet and unspoilt so they could run wild a bit – rather spoiling the quiet once we got there! It was like going back in time on Harris and I fell in love with the island. The scenery is stunning and Scots Gaelic is still spoken. I couldn’t believe that here was a part of the UK but with such an ancient and unique culture still in place, and its own language. 



A photo of Harris, an island in the Hebrides, by Elisabeth Gifford

We made some wonderful friends who shared stories of the last century. I loved the stories of selkies and mermaids that my small daughter told me, from her friend on the island. Then I came across the work of Gaelic historian John MacAulay and found that the legends were a form of oral history; there was in fact something very real behind the seal people myths. Through him, I came across the letter to the Times newspaper reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster in 1809 and it all began from there. 

But underlying that was an awareness how in Ireland and Skye the old Gaelic culture had been inevitably suburbanized. I felt it was important to try and record Harris as it was, because with improved access via the Skye road bridge now meaning you only have to take one boat to get there, it risks the same process. 


How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I would firmly advise planning a novel before you start it, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. I begin with some ideas and some scenes. When I see where things are going I begin to channel the work towards a story arc. Eventually I have to be strict about adding and subtracting as some things may become backstory, only for you as a writer, and don’t help the plot. Once you have a voice that begins to speak and boss you around, as happened with Moira, it can sometimes feel like the story is out of your hands! If you hold too tight, the air can go out of things. When you think the book is done, then that’s a good time to stand back and see if you need to tighten the story line. That last stage is really important.
 


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I certainly find that I can dream what I’m really thinking about a situation and I wake up with a better understanding of it. I’ve had some surprising moments of clarity that way. The mind doesn’t always think in words! Sometimes, I like to go to bed having read some notes on a scene so that in the morning it feels active and live when I sit down to write. Once or twice, a clear dream has opened a door to the beginning of a story. I find that it’s important to value an almost dreaming attitude when creating a new scene so that you can imagine the richness you need to evoke a place. 


Are you a daydreamer too?
By nature that’s my default setting. It used to get me into a lot of hot water as a child as I was generally facing the wrong way and with the wrong equipment at school - but having great thoughts. I don’t intend to give it up any time soon.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes I have, but it took a while to find the time and the confidence to decide I was allowed to spend lots of time writing. I began taking creative writing courses because I loved the process so much. From the Oxford diploma and the London University MA I found that I ended up with material for two books – and lots of inspiring friends, and now write full time.
 
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
My father was a vicar in the industrial midlands so I’m very grateful for a rich and varied childhood. I hung around a lot of churchyards and loved the history of the old churches and cathedrals. Dad would stride around in a black cassock and sometimes go off to do an exorcism in a haunted house. I lived in France for a year, and in several parts of England and am now settled in Kingston, near London. My husband’s family comes from Scotland so we’ve spent a lot of time there. I adore the way that writing allows you to explore and evoke time and place and love being absorbed in a book project. I love visiting places for research and so have been to China ( for a book on Chinese orphanages), the Hebrides, Spain, Sweden and soon, Warsaw for a new book.  
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 
We took the children to the Hebrides several times while they were growing up, looking for somewhere quiet and unspoilt so they could run wild a bit – rather spoiling the quiet once we got there! It was like going back in time on Harris and I fell in love with the island. The scenery is stunning and Scots Gaelic is still spoken. I couldn’t believe that here was a part of the UK but with such an ancient and unique culture still in place, and its own language. We made some wonderful friends who shared stories of the last century. I loved the stories of selkies and mermaids that my small daughter told me, from her friend on the island. Then I came across the work of Gaelic historian John MacAulay and found that the legends were a form of oral history; there was in fact something very real behind the seal people myths. Through him, I came across the letter to the Times newspaper reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster in 1809 and it all began from there. But underlying that was an awareness how in Ireland and Skye the old Gaelic culture had been inevitably suburbanized. I felt it was important to try and record Harris as it was, because with improved access via the Skye road bridge now meaning you only have to take one boat to get there, it risks the same process. 




How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I would firmly advise planning a novel before you start it, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. I begin with some ideas and some scenes. When I see where things are going I begin to channel the work towards a story arc. Eventually I have to be strict about adding and subtracting as some things may become backstory, only for you as a writer, and don’t help the plot. Once you have a voice that begins to speak and boss you around, as happened with Moira, it can sometimes feel like the story is out of your hands! If you hold too tight, the air can go out of things. When you think the book is done, then that’s a good time to stand back and see if you need to tighten the story line. That last stage is really important.
 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I certainly find that I can dream what I’m really thinking about a situation and I wake up with a better understanding of it. I’ve had some surprising moments of clarity that way. The mind doesn’t always think in words! Sometimes, I like to go to bed having read some notes on a scene so that in the morning it feels active and live when I sit down to write. Once or twice, a clear dream has opened a door to the beginning of a story. I find that it’s important to value an almost dreaming attitude when creating a new scene so that you can imagine the richness you need to evoke a place. 


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
When I’d finished Secret of the Sea House I was thrilled to find that there is in fact an archeological site in Arctic Norway for the vanished Sea Sami who once visited the shores of Scotland – giving rise to the sea people legends. The reported mermaid sightings died out conclusively 200 years ago and I couldn’t understand why they suddenly stopped. Then, after the book was published, I found that the Sea Sami culture also died out at exactly that time, under intense pressure to assimilate into mainstream culture in Norway and that made a lot of sense.

Through researching the new book that I’m editing now, I found that a relative had been part of a silent conspiracy around the British Embassy in Madrid to rescue Jewish refugees in 1940. A large circle of the most glamorous people there got together to rescue thousands of Jews and stranded allied soldiers who were escaping from France through the Pyrenees into Spain. It is hardly known about because of the conspiracy of silence that endured for many years after the war; the Spanish rescuers were risking a great deal defying Franco’s regime, and of course he stayed in power until the end of the seventies. 
 

Where do you write, and when? 
I have a laptop and move around the house depending on the sun and who is at home making noise! I can tune out quite a lot. My husband is an illustrator who works at home and has his own room, but I don’t want to feel I can only work in one place in case it becomes too limiting. 

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love story and the magical way it has of telling us so much about who we are. I loved how, in The Wild Girl, the fairy tales are shown to be the source of healing for some of the characters in a very real way. I read Talking of Love on the Edge of a Precipice by Boris Cyrulnik. As a Jewish child he was hidden for years in solitude during the Second World War. Now he uses story to help people tell their traumatic pasts in a way that helps them build resilience. We tell stories as entertainment of course but they can also do a deep, healing work, helping us understand ourselves, where we come from and where we want to go.


What do you do when you get blocked? 
I read. It’s so exciting to see how other writers go about things sometimes, and the way they use words. Or I might research pictures, films, and places. If I can I visit a new place that helps. Another way in is to let yourself write freely without censoring, from whatever inspires or interests you. Something can come out of that sort of writing that is fresh and exciting - it may be messy but you can go back and edit it into something with a shape. Or I write ‘in voice’ to see what a character has to say.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
I used to feel guilty about how much time I spent paying attention to the wrong things, but I love being in the moment and taking in the sounds, sights and smells of a place, getting a feel for a person or a situation. Imagery comes out of those impressions, so you have to spend time being aware of your own experiences in order to top up your bank. Also, reading around a subject is such fun and keeps on opening new doors - that you then want to explore. When writing the Sea House I was lucky to be able to spend several summers on the island itself in various locations and cottages and I think I read almost all the books available about the Outer Hebrides!
 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
I’ve sort of banned rituals in case they become too essential, but some things really do help. A quiet space is vital. I write in the morning, as that’s when I’m most fresh mentally, and I try and get enough sleep and exercise - with varying success. In the first stages I might wander around imagining scenes and get the writing down quickly. For the structuring phases I will sit at a desk so that I can spread out notes and schemes. Then I’ll read everything very critically to see what it feels like for the reader - lots of reading out loud to see how it runs at the editing phase. I suppose I have processes more that rituals.


Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Marilynne Robinson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tan Twan Eng, Flaubert, Alice Munroe, Seamus Heaney, Annie Proulx, Hilary Mantel, Catherine O’Flynne and Matthew Kneale. They are all writers who make you want to read their work over and over again and who have a wonderful sense of narrative – and humour.
 

What do you consider to be good writing? 
People write as individually as they sing or talk! So I’m pretty open. I love writing that is energetic and full of texture, where the words evoke the story through the senses, the images and the detail. But I also love story and plot and read plenty of detective novels too. 
 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
 First of all check you like to spend an awful lot of time writing. Write and read lots and lots. Keep a notebook and don’t be too critical with your initial outpourings. Read all you can about the writing process, find a group of fellow writers to workshop with, and then learn how to put on your editor’s hat and shape your writing to where you want it go. Don’t be quick to bin things. They may be the start of something that you come back to later!
 

What are you working on now? 
It’s a family saga that spans two world wars and begins with a bride who runs away from her wedding. Part of it has been published as a short story, largely about my mother’s experience as an orphan after the war – with her permission. Without realizing it, you soak up a lot of family experience from your parents and their parents. I think I wanted to hold some of the textures and history of the last century, and explore how war deeply affected our parents and grand parents. It’s also about how families keep secrets.

It sounds wonderful! I'll be looking out for it eagerly. 

SPOTLIGHT: Selkie fairy tales from Scotland

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

I have always loved stories about selkies. 

I have actually just re-written two selkie tales from Scotland to be published in May next year by Christmas Press, beautifully illustrated by the wonderful artist Fiona McDonald. 





One of my favourite books published last year was a selkie-inspired fantasy - Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan - and I have just read, and fallen in love with, a brilliant selkie-inspired family drama set in the Scottish Hebrides that moves between the present and the past. The book is called Secrets of the Sea House and is written by debut author Elisabeth Gifford, who has joined us today to talk about her own fascination with the selkie myth:




The secret history hidden in the Selkie story.

The legend of the Selkie is told along the Western coast of Scotland and as far down as Ireland. 

Selkies are seals in the water, but once on land, they take off their skins and become human. If an ordinary mortal sees a Selkie in human form, they will inevitably fall in love. 

The Selkie legend has several variations but never ends happily. The husband or wife of a Selkie may hide away their seal skins, but once their hiding place is discovered the Selkie is powerless to resist the call of the sea. He slides back into his skins and departs, leaving behind any children.

It’s a sad and spine tingling legend that I first heard while on holiday in the Outer Hebrides with my children. But as I read and researched the history of the islands, I began to realise that the Selkie story was much more than just a fairy story. 

In his book on the seal people, Gaelic historian John MacAulay puts forward an interesting theory, that the Selkie stories are actually a very old form of oral history. He suggests that for thousands of years, Eskimo type kayakers in sealskin canoes have been travelling down to Scotland from remote Arctic Norway. The Sea Sami, now extinct, were a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers that used Eskimo kayaks and technology to hunt and fish.

Now imagine how such a kayaker must have looked to someone who had never seen a kayaker before. A sealskin kayak becomes waterlogged after eight hours and so lies just below the surface of the water. All you would see from the shore would be the top half of a man and below the water, the shape of a long tail wavering in the refracted light. It must have looked remarkably like a creature that was half man, half seal. And imagine the islander’s shock if that creature came ashore, took off its sealskins and became entirely human. 

There are several families from the Outer Hebrides who came claim direct descent from sea people. The famous poet MacOdrum was said to be one of the seal people and to get his skill in song writing from the seal’s gift of singing. 

I was amazed to find that there were also many sightings of mermaids around Scotland’s shores, recorded by highly respectable people, among them, a letter to the London Times in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a schoolmaster in Sanday. There was even a record of a funeral held in 1830 for a mermaid whose body was washed up on the shore of Benbecula in the Hebrides. 

It could well be that such mermaid sightings were describing sightings of the same kayakers from Norway. 

The Times mermaid was seen seated on a rock inaccessible to any human, combing its long hair. It’s interesting to note that a seal skinkayak has to haul out onto a rock every so often to dry out the kayak. 

A female kayaker would no doubt take the chance to comb out her hair. As soon as it saw it was observed, the long-tailed creature launched back into the water, as a kayak would from a rock. 

The Sea Sami tribe that once lived in Norway has now disappeared. Almost none of their fragile artefacts or kayaks have survived to prove that they ever visited Scotland. Two hundred years ago, under intense pressure to assimilate into the mainstream culture, the Sea Sami way of life disappeared. The last recorded mermaid sighting was also two hundred years ago – both mermaids and Sea Sami disappeared at exactly the same time.
 
The Selkie stories are probably the clearest evidence we have that Sea Sami ever visited the islands of the North Scotland. 

Most of the island families that claim to be descended from Selkies are now in Canada or America following the mid Victorian clearances in Scotland, when entire communities of Gaelic crofters were evicted to make way for the landlord’s sheep. 

In Secrets of the Sea House, Moira’s struggle with eviction in 1860 reflects that sad time. In a strange parallel, it seems that the mermaid and Selkie sightings stopped because the Sea Sami culture was banned in Norway, just as the Gaelic culture of the Outer Isles was once supressed for many years. Secrets of the Sea House is a mystery story, but it is also a way to celebrate and hold on to some of the history of the Western seaboard of Scotland, and in particular the magical Selkie stories.


BOOK REVIEW: Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Monday, November 04, 2013




Title: Secrets of the Sea House
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Publisher: Corvus
Age Group & Genre: Parallel Contemporary/Historical Novel for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth


The Blurb:
Based on a real letter to the Times by a Victorian schoolmaster reporting a mermaid sighting, Secrets of the Sea House is an epic, sweeping tale of loss and love; hope and redemption; and how we heal ourselves with the stories we tell.

Scotland, 1860. Reverend Alexander Ferguson, naïve and newly-ordained, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the Hebridean island of Harris. His time on the island will irrevocably change the course of his life, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after Alexander departs. 


It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child's fragile legs are fused together - a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? But can the answers to Ruth's questions lie in her own past. 


What I Thought: 

I absolutely loved this book!

Intriguing and atmospheric, SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE is set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, with the narrative moving between the contemporary story of Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.  

Ruth and Michael are living in, and renovating, the ramshackle Sea House on the Hebridean Island of Harris. Ruth is haunted by feelings of fear and grief, and worries they have made a mistake in sinking all their savings into this remote and run-down house. Then they discover, buried beneath the floorboards, the tiny bones of a dead child. Its legs are fused together, its feet splayed like flippers. The discovery unsettles Ruth, reminding her of her dead mother’s strange tales of a selkie ancestry. She begins to try and find out how the skeleton came to be buried under the house. 

The story moves to 1860, and the alternating points of view of the young and handsome Reverend Alexander Ferguson and his intelligent yet illiterate housemaid, Moira. Alexander’s obsession with mermaids and selkies, and his forbidden attraction to the daughter of the local laird, lead to grief and betrayal and death. 

The book is full of the windswept and isolated beauty of the Hebrides, and I particularly like the way in which the author has researched - and possibly explained - the origin of Selkie tales in Scotland. I had never heard of this historical basis for these beautiful myths and so I learnt something new, which always makes me happy.

I also really loved the way in which the protagonist, Ruth, has to struggle with her own tragic history and try to find some way to overcome fears that felt very real.

Secrets of the Sea House is one of my favourite reads of the year - it is haunting, beautiful and magical. 




Writer’s website: http://www.elisabethgifford.com/
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT – I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK


BOOK LIST: Books Read in September 2013

Saturday, October 26, 2013


I’ve been on the move nearly all this month, with lots of Book Week events, followed by the Brisbane Writers Festival, and then the rest of the month spent on the road in England and Wales. So a lot of my reading was done on my e-book reader, which I really only use while travelling, and also dictated by where I was and what I was doing. I still managed to read 13 books (though one was only a novella), with lots of romance and murder mysteries, and one absolutely riveting and blood-chilling non-fiction.  


1. Ember Island – Kimberley Freeman


I get all excited when I hear a new Kimberley Freeman novel is due out. I know I’m in for a real page-turning delight, with a delicious mix of mystery, romance, history and family drama. These are books I like to clear some space for, because I know that once I pick one up I’m utterly compelled to keep on reading till the very end. ‘Ember Island’ was no exception. It weaves together the story of Tilly Kirkland, newly married to a man of secrets in the Channel Islands in 1890; and the story of bestselling novelist Nina Jones, who retreats to a small Queensland island in 2012 in an attempt to heal her broken heart and overcome her crippling writer’s block. The two stories touch as Nina discovers old diary pages hidden in the walls of her dilapidated old house … 



2. Captive of Sin – Anna Campbell
I like nothing better than a good romance novel, particularly when I’m feeling tired and over-worked (which seems to be all the time at the moment). Anna Campbell had recently been voted Australia’s Favourite Romance Author and I had read and enjoyed one of her earlier novels ‘Seven Night’s In A Rogue’s Bed’ and so hunted down another of her books. ‘Captive of Sin’ is a very readable Regency romance with a hero tormented by dark secrets in his past and a heroine on the run from her abusive step-brothers. I enjoyed it immensely!



3. Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
I’ve been hearing some slowly building buzz about this book for some kind, which grew much louder after it was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Then I met Elizabeth Wein at the Brisbane Writers Festival and so grabbed a copy. I’m so glad I did. I loved this book so much. ‘Code Name Verity’ begins with the first person account of a young English woman who has been captured by the Nazis in German-occupied France during the Second World War. She has been tortured and has agreed to tell her interrogators everything she knows. Instead, however, she writes about her growing friendship with Maddie, the female pilot who had dropped her into France. The first person voice is intimate and engaging and surprisingly funny; the descriptions of flying are lyrically beautiful; and the growing fear for our heroine masterfully built. At a high point of tension, the narrative voice suddenly swaps to Maddie, and we hear the rest of the story from her point of view. This switch in view destabilises the whole story in an utterly brilliant and surprising way. I gasped out loud once or twice, and finished the book with eyes swimming with tears. Once of the best YA historical novels I have ever read. 



4. The Passion of the Purple Plumeria – Lauren Willig
This is Book No 12 in a long-running series of delightful and very funny historical romances that tell the adventures of a set of English spies in Napoleonic times. The spies all have named like the Pink Carnation and the Black Tulip, and rampage about in disguise, getting into trouble, falling in love, and fighting off bully-boys with swords hidden in their parasols. Think the Scarlet Pimpernel mixed with Georgette Heyer and Sophie Kinsella (the books also have a chick-lit thread with the contemporary adventures of a young woman tracking down the truth about the Pink Carnation and other spies). Fabulous, frivolous fun (but you must start with Book 1 ‘The Secret History of the Pink Carnation’.)



5. The Dress of the Season – Kate Noble
A sweet little Regency romance novella, adroitly handled by the author, and quite a nice way to pass the commute to work. It’s so short it can be read in an hour or so. I downloaded it on to my e-reader while caught with nothing to read in an airport, and finished it just as the gates opened for boarding. Nice.



6. Hanns & Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz – Thomas Harding
The author of this utterly riveting and chilling book found out, at his great-uncle’s funeral, that the mild-mannered old man he had known had once been a Nazi hunter. And not just any Nazi. His Great Uncle Hanns had been the man who had hunted down and caught Rudolf Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz and the architect of the Final Solution that saw millions of people efficiently and cold-bloodedly murdered.

Thomas Harding was so surprised and intrigued by this revelation, he began to try and found out more. His research led him to write this extraordinary book, which parallels the lives of the two men from birth till death.

Rudolf Hoss was born in 1901 in Baden-Baden, and ran away at the age of 14 to fight in WWI. He was a Commander at just sixteen years old, and joined the National Socialist Party after spending time in prison after murdering a traitor. 

Hanns Alexander, meanwhile, was born in 1933 in Berlin to a prosperous middle-class Jewish family. He managed to escape Germany in time, but his great-aunt died in the concentration camps and his family lost everything. When WWII broke out, he fought for the British army, along with his twin brother.

Hoss, meanwhile, was busy fulfilling his orders to make Auschwitz ‘a site of mass annihilation.’ The chapters set during this time are truly disturbing and had me in tears more than once. Then, as Germany lost the war, Hoss escaped – abandoning his wife and children - and hid himself in an assumed identity.

After the concentration camps were discovered, the War Crimes Commission was established and Hanns Alexander was chosen to help track down war criminals. How he tracked down Hoss makes for riveting reading; in parts, it feels more like a thriller than non-fiction. An utterly brilliant book which I recommend very highly. 


7. Anybody Out There – Marian Keyes
I have never read any of Marian Keyes’ books before and bought one on the very strong recommendation of a friend.  She said that they were the sort of books that make you laugh and make you cry, and really, what more could you want from any book? ‘Anybody Out There’ is certainly an engaging mixture of humour and pathos and gave me a lump in the throat more than once. It tells the story of Anna Walsh, who has been in some kind of terrible accident, and is recuperating on her parents’ couch in Dublin. But Anna is desperate to speak to a man named Aiden and so returns to New York to find him. There’s a vast cast of eccentric characters, some odd and some funny moments, and a dark and serious streak I was not expecting. Marian Keyes is not afraid to grapple with themes of grief, depression, loneliness, and pain, even as she mocks the shallowness of the beauty industry and throws in some slapstick humour. The warmth and wit of her heroine, Anna, keeps the story from jangling too wildly. This is chick-lit with heart and an acute social conscience.




8. Love on a Midsummer Night – Christie English
A lovely, gentle and lyrical Regency romance with themes and images from 
Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" woven through. The hero is a dissolute rake who has never been able to forget his first love. The heroine is a vulnerable widow who had been forced into marriage with a much older man and is now forced to stand against his lascivious heir. She turns to her old flame for help, and finds herself falling in love all over again. A sweet and easy read.



9. Witch Child – Celia Rees
This wonderful historical novel for teenagers begins: ‘I am Mary. I am a witch.’ It is set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II. Her story is purportedly told in diary entries that have been found sewn inside a quilt. It is a tragic and powerful tale, which begins when Mary’s grandmother is arrested and tortured by witch-finders and then hanged in the town square. Mary is rescued by a rich woman who she suspects may be her real mother, and sent to join a group of Puritans fleeing to the New World. However, the Puritans are stern and narrow-minded and quick to blame any misfortune on witchcraft. Mary finds herself in increasing danger as the party lands in Salem, Massachusetts. A growing friendship with a Native American and his shaman grandfather increases her risk. A simple yet powerful tale that explores the nature of magic and superstition, faith and cruelty.


10. The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy - James Anderson
As one can probably tell from the title, this book is a gentle spoof of the Golden Age type of mysteries written by authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. The story is set in a stately home. There is a butler, a beautiful and mysterious baroness whose car just happens to crash outside the manor’s front gate, a daring jewel thief, an amiable fool called Algernon Fotheringay, and a very puzzling mystery that involves not just a locked room but, indeed, a locked house.  The detective is humble and crumpled, and, oh yes, there’s a few international spies thrown in too. I adored it. Clever, amusing, and surprisingly surprising. 


11. Beware This Boy – Maureen Jennings
I had never heard of Maureen Jennings before I picked up this book, but apparently she is best known for a series of historical mysteries that have been televised as ‘the Murdoch Mysteries’. I was interested in this book because it was compared to ‘Foyle’s War’, which I love, and because generally anything set during the Second World War is of interest to me. It’s an unusual crime novel. Yes, there is murder, and sabotage, and spies, and skulduggery, but the action is slow and deliberate, and much of the emphasis is on the interior lives of its troubled characters. The action all takes place in in rain, in fog, in bomb shelters, and in munitions’ factories. The atmosphere is gloomy and laden with dread. This is historical crime at its most serious and deliberate, and most effective in its evocation of a terrible time in British history.


12. A Parcel of Patterns – Jill Paton Walsh
I spent a weekend in the Peaks District during my time in the UK this month. Given a choice between visiting Chatsworth House (the opulent seat of the Duke of Devonshire which was used as the site of Pemberley in the 2005 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice) and a small local village called Eyam (prounced ‘eem’), you might be surprised to know I chose the latter. Eyam, however, is the famous ‘plague village’ which isolated itself voluntarily in 1665 after the Black Death arrived in a flea-infested parcel of cloth. Only 83 villagers survived from a total population of 350. One of my all-time favourite books, ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks, published in 2001, imagines what may have happened in that village in that year. ‘A Parcel of Patterns’ by Jill Paton Walsh, published in 1983, was one of the first fictional attempts to grapple with the subject. It is told from the point of view of a young woman named Mall, and shows how the coming of the plague destroyed lives and loves, and faith and fealty. It’s a delicate little book, and very sad.


13. Secrets of the Sea House - Elisabeth Gifford
An intriguing and atmospheric novel set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, the narrative moves between the contemporary story of Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.  


Ruth and Michael are living in, and renovating, the ramshackle Sea House on the Hebridean Island of Harris. Ruth is haunted by feelings of fear and grief, and worries they have made a mistake in sinking all their savings into this remote and run-down house. Then they discover, buried beneath the floorboards, the tiny bones of a dead child. Its legs are fused together, its feet splayed like flippers. The discovery unsettles Ruth, reminding her of her dead mother’s strange tales of a selkie ancestry. She begins to try and find out how the skeleton came to be buried under the house. 


The story moves to 1860, and the alternating points of view of the young and handsome Reverend Alexander Ferguson and his intelligent yet illiterate housemaid, Moira. Alexander’s obsession with mermaids and selkies, and his forbidden attraction to the daughter of the local laird, lead to grief and betrayal and death. 


The weaving together of the two threads is masterfully done. The story is powerful, beautiful, and magical, and Ruth’s struggle to overcome the shackles of the past is sensitively handled. Hard to believe this is a debut author – definitely one to watch. 

BOOKS READ IN AUGUST




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